Methods in Action: Ethnographic Study of Street Gangs


Why does the Homeric of ‘violent’ seem so wedded to the term ‘street gang’? There’s a number of reasons, of course, but one of them comes from the stories that established gang members pass down to their initiates, making the idea of violence as much as geography part of the gang’s identity.

TimothyLaugerThat’s a key message that Niagara University criminology professor Timothy J. Lauger derived from his ethnographic study of a street gang – the Down for Whatever Boyz —  in the heartland American city of Indianapolis. His research, published in a 2014 edition of Criminal Justice Review, late last year was awarded the James L. Maddex Jr. Paper of the Year Award by the journal.

The James L. Maddex Jr. award is named for the longtime editor of Criminal Justice Review and the professor emeritus of the department of criminal justice and criminology at Georgia State University. The award is co-sponsored by GSU and SAGE Publishing.

Lauger’s paper, “Violent Stories: Personal Narratives, Street Socialization, and the Negotiation of Street Culture Among Street-Oriented Youth,” saw the author focus on the transmission of gang culture, with an emphasis on the tension between appearing authentic versus appearing as an impostor, after conversations with active gang members.

In addition, the ‘real’ messages to the street microculture “communicate[s] that violence is a proper response to the improper conduct of peers and violent retaliation is an expected reaction to victimization.” The good news, such as it is, he finds, is that the messages are “neither static nor homogeneous” and that even in authentic reactions “violence is not inevitable,” suggesting violence may not be doomed to echo eternally.

Lauger, who earned his doctorate at from Indiana University Bloomington, also wrote a book drawn from his gang studies, 2012’s Real Gangstas: Legitimacy, Reputation, and Violence in the Intergang Environment. He joined the faculty at Niagara in 2012.

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your academic interests? What drew you to the nexus of gangsta culture and academe?

I was born and raised in rural Northern Wisconsin far away from gangs and street violence. I remember being fascinated with cities and crime at a young age, but my interests in gangs and street life did not begin until college when I first began to engage the gang literature. I also had a few professors in college who brought classes into impoverished urban neighborhoods of Grand Rapids, Michigan and Chicago. This piqued my interest in understanding something that was far different from my personal experience. This interest grew when I went to graduate school and more deeply engaged the literature.

My specific focus on culture, however, really only emerged when I was doing research and then analyzing my data. I learned more about culture by trying to understand my experiences in Indianapolis than I did from my previous studies. Currently, my interests continue to focus on culture, as I have been doing some research on local gang rap videos that are posted on YouTube. I have also spent a lot of time studying social constructionism more deeply, a desire that stems from insights from my research in Indianapolis. I am also thinking about the next big project and currently considering doing an ethnographic study of the police.

This paper draws on ethnographic research of street gangs, in this case in Indianapolis. How do you, as what seems to me to be an outsider, establish the cred to get your subjects to open up? And since these are people often talking about criminal behavior, what sort of ground rules – both by them and an IRB – did you have?

My advice to aspiring ethnographers facing similar challenges is to be present, reliable and honest in your interactions with people (even if they do not reciprocate), and interested in the people you study, allowing them to tell you their story.

I firmly believe that everyone has a story to tell and most people want to tell it. Getting potential research participants to trust me took time, repeated interactions, and verification that I was genuinely concerned for their well-being. Once a few key people trusted me, they convinced others to trust me. I spent a lot of time hanging around a non-profit youth center where gang members frequented for at least a year prior to the beginning of my research.  This involved a lot of boring downtime and mundane conversations with people I never incorporated into the study. But, gang members increasingly became familiar with me and began to trust me when other people at the center trusted me. I also worked with the gang members by driving them to prospective employers and helping them fill out job applications after other people at the center could not or would not help them. That dramatically increased my access to them and eventually allowed me to hang out with them on a routine basis.

My application passed through IRB more quickly than I anticipated. There were a few areas concern that I had to address. First, I had to take standard precautions to ensure that research participants would remain anonymous. This includes transcribing interviews/conversations quickly and then destroying the recordings, taking out all identifying information from data, and keeping the data locked in files or on my computer. Second, I had to get signed consent from all participants and the parents of juveniles in the study. Third, I had to tell participants that I was ethically obligated to report any impending violence. I strictly told them not to tell me anything about their future plans for violence. All other information, including knowledge of past violence, was to be kept confidential.

How much ‘cred’ does your own cultural subgroup grant your work on this?

This is an interesting question because I, like many people, navigate multiple subcultures that are generally separate from each other. That which is valued in one social circle is largely ignored in another. Most of the people I routinely interact with outside of academia are either not aware of my academic work or have only a vague understanding of what I do. I tend not to talk much about my experiences hanging out with gang members. One friend read my book and wanted to talk to me about it in-depth and a few of my relatives have read the book, but everyone else in my personal network does not seem to care. It is not that they question the credibility of my research or research in general, but that they are simply not interested in seriously engaging the subject matter.

My work seems to have been well received within the academic subculture that I engage. Winning an award is certainly validating, and I have had numerous conversations with established scholars that were similarly affirming. I have not received much critical feedback, but some scholars may question the credibility of ethnographic methods that rely on unstructured interviews with a small sample. I had a peer reviewer comment about that on an earlier draft of the paper. My journal article relies on five conversations or stories from a small number of individuals connected to two gang members. Although the broader study included 55 individuals, critics can question the reliability of an article that has such a narrow focus. This is a valid concern, but sampling and interview methods that capture more representative sections of a population often lack both the ability to record natural conversations on the street and the intimate relationships with study participants needed to properly interpret such conversations. There is value in the narrow focus used in this article just as there is value in different qualitative or quantitative techniques. I should add that ethnographers can be equally dismissive of more structured techniques and/or quantitative research. I find it both interesting and disconcerting to see how many ethnographers fail to draw upon insights from quantitative studies to inform their analysis. However, most scholars I encounter seem to accept that varying methods have different strengths and weaknesses.

CJR-cover-206x300If I’m not doing violence to your own work, this paper examines how street culture is passed down in the stories that existing gang members tell newer ones, a dynamic process and one that seems to really value authenticity. Can you briefly describe your takeaway from the research?

That is an accurate summary, and I have three additional takeaways. First, gang members, like all of us, negotiate meaning in their daily lives. Meaning shapes how they perceive events and constrains their behavioral options during an event. Yet gang members are not passively responding to a system of meaning; they contribute to the creation or alteration of meaning during routine conversations. This article demonstrates gang members tell stories about violence in a way that affirms and gives meaning to various cultural ideas about when and why violence should occur on the streets.

Second, I continue to be struck by the subjectivity of social life and how individuals perceive and then discuss social events not in an objective, factual manner, but through self-serving and/or culturally specific ways. Narratives following a fight may differ depending on the storyteller. Thus the facts of an event may become less important than the narratives that emerge after a fight. Or, fights will be interpreted differently depending on the cultural setting in which they occur.  Even when people agree on the facts of the fight, they may interpret the meaning of those facts differently. The application of these ideas to street violence and gang life needs to be explored further.

Third, authenticity is really important on the streets and in gangs. The primary focus of my book, Real Gangstas, was to show how gang members negotiated a peer environment that was inherently skeptical about their claims of being authentic or legitimate gang members. Lacking clear indices to gain legitimacy, they worked to validate their status as gang members by generating well-known reputations for violence. Although such reputations are connected to actual violence, they are largely developed through conversations, stories, gossip, and other public behaviors that generate personal and group-based myths. Thus a person or group’s reputation for violence is subjective, forcing gang members to make calculated, but possibly inaccurate, assessments about the potential for violence when confronting other people or groups on the street.

This suggests to me that the seeds of intervention could be planted as those narratives unfold. I realize this isn’t what the paper is about, but do you see ways to address gang violence arising from understanding how these ‘ideocultures’ form?

Yes, cultural processes, in this case stories, influence the meanings that guide how people interpret situations that could end in violence. A logical inference of my work is that the gang members in the study are more likely than peers to view violence as a viable outcome of contentious interactions. Their interpretations of situations will likely trigger awareness that violence is a warranted response to a perceived insult, and they will anticipate the consequences of violence and nonviolence differently then someone in another cultural setting.

By extension, if intervention efforts could challenge and alter the meanings that guide such interpretive processes, then gang members may be less inclined to engage in violence. Perhaps prevention and intervention efforts should focus on altering culturally specific meanings that guide behavior. However, many of these meaning are grounded in objective realities directly experienced by individuals in the street. The meaning and logic that leads to retaliatory violence stem from experiences with retaliatory violence. To use a different example, the meanings and logic that cause individuals to distrust the police are grounded in past experiences with the police. In both cases, subjective meaning may exaggerate perceptions to the point of inaccuracy, but perceptions will not change if evidence still reinforces one’s understanding of the problem. Regarding violence, altering one’s understanding of cultural meanings may only reduce violent behavior if events reinforcing the original mentality (i.e. continued violence) cease to exist.

Speaking of solutions, your work includes areas such as evidence-based violence reduction and using street intelligence to reduce crime. Can you offer any positive news or hopes on those fronts?

I am currently working with a colleague, Craig Rivera, under a state grant through the local District Attorney’s office. We are using official crime records and law enforcement intelligence to identify which individuals or groups in Niagara Falls, New York are most involved in local shootings. These efforts will then be used to target the most serious violent offenders through a strategy called focused deterrence. In short, this strategy notifies targeted offenders that violence or shootings will no longer be tolerated and continued participation in such activities will lead to an aggressive response from the criminal justice working group. Evaluations on the strategy from other cities have demonstrated that it can help reduce gun violence in a way that does not arbitrarily target community residents. We are currently in the process of analyzing data and have a report due at the end of the month. I am hopeful that our efforts will be beneficial to the Niagara Falls community, but it is too early to tell if the program will be successful. Our final report is due in a few weeks.